Healthy You - Every Day

Inside Rafael’s COVID-19 Battle

How medicine, compassion and will prevailed

In the space of about a week this past December, the hardworking truck driver with a slight cough became the critically ill COVID-19 patient on a ventilator.

As he lay heavily sedated and intubated in the intensive care unit (ICU) at Lehigh Valley Hospital (LVH)–Cedar Crest, Rafael Bonilla didn’t know his family was told he might not survive. Nevertheless, he says he resolved to keep fighting. At times, he says, he could feel himself slipping away, despite a foggy sense of what was happening around him. He was determined, consciously or not, to hold on.

And hold on he did. In all, Bonilla, 49, was in the hospital for nearly two months.

Did You Know?

As of early April 2022, there were more than 486 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide since the start of the pandemic.

Spirit and motivation fuel a comeback

After inpatient physical therapy, he was discharged to his home in Williams Township near Easton. He now participates in outpatient physical therapy at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Health Center at Palmer Township, near his home. He works on his endurance and strength and resolving the drop foot he developed while critically ill.

A kidney transplant recipient in 2020, Bonilla says his motivation to get better revolved around his family, including his two teenage children. His spirit and motivation were evident to his caregivers, including Charlene Kreider, his inpatient physical therapist at LVH–Cedar Crest.

Bonilla, a longtime martial arts instructor who also operates Dragon Dynamics, a personal training business, was very self-aware and focused, Kreider says. “He was a very motivated patient, and his motivation aided in how much progress he was able to make,” she says. Many patients have shallow breathing after a severe bout with COVID-19, which can be anxiety producing. “He was able to work through that,” she says.

Kreider worked to help Bonilla increase his endurance, strengthen his core muscles and improve his balance so he could safely return home, where he needs to climb 40 steps to reach his third-floor residence. Bonilla says he’s a competitive person, even with himself. “If Charlene asked me to walk 50 feet, I would try to walk 200 feet,” he says.

Each patient is different when it comes to rehabilitation progress, Kreider says. Each is like a puzzle to be solved so they can physically get where they need to be so they can go home. Once those patients turn a corner in their recovery, it becomes more rapid, she says.

Bonilla, she says, was great to work with because of his drive and positive attitude. “He was able to overcome his critical condition and his anxiety,” she says.

Bonilla also is doing well in his outpatient physical therapy. LVHN physical therapist Christopher Rodolico says Bonilla is one of the hardest workers in the room every session. “He possesses an important factor that is hard to quantify but easy to see when someone possesses it: grit. His determination concerning his recovery and rehabilitation is admirable,” Rodolico says. “Despite having a number of challenges and complications tossed his way, there is no doubt that Rafael will continue to progress toward his goals. He’s a true pleasure to be around and work with.”

Bonilla, a former Marine Corps reservist, said he wasn’t vaccinated against COVID-19 when he got sick. At the time, he says, he was still evaluating vaccine information. Because of his kidney transplant and the need for regular anti-rejection medication, his immune system was compromised.

“From a personal standpoint, if we all had the chance to go back and change things, we know better now,” he says. “Be informed and try to make the best choice for you and your physical condition. Be careful, and do things in a smart way.”

Compassionate care matters

Bonilla couldn’t have visitors in the hospital because of COVID, but he says he never felt alone or isolated because of the compassion and support from his caregivers. He says the nurses on the 4K South unit at LVH–Cedar Crest, where he was treated, deserve so much credit for what they do because most people don’t see it or hear about it.

“They really care,” he says, adding nurses even got him Christmas presents including crossword puzzle books. It’s kindness he says he’ll remember forever.

They are shedding tears in your room with you. They are reassuring you. Especially when you are not allowed to have visitors, that means a lot. It was so important and special to me. I will never forget that.” – Rafael Bonilla, LVH–Cedar Crest COVID-19 patient.

After he was discharged, he sent a bouquet of flowers to the nurses to say thanks.

“It’s really about the human connection,” he says. For someone like him, scared and so close to not making it, they made a difference. “They are shedding tears in your room with you. They are reassuring you. Especially when you are not allowed to have visitors, that means a lot. It was so important and special to me. I will never forget that.”

The next chapter

Bonilla’s return to truck driving isn’t yet certain, but he says his employer, Triumvirate Environmental, has been great to him. “They told me my job is secure,” he says. If he can’t get back behind the wheel of his truck, he says, the company promised to create a position for him.

For now, Bonilla takes things one day at a time and is forever grateful for those who helped make that happen.

COVID resources

Vaccine booster

Including vaccination locations and how to schedule a vaccine.

LVHN.org/vaccines

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